Huang: What I learned from the founder of Spikeball

Yujia Huang, Daily Columnist

One of the biggest perks of going to a school like Northwestern is the array of interesting people who come here to speak. I feel lucky to get the opportunity to engage with people who have successfully navigated challenges to get to the place they want to be.

Last week, Spikeball founder Chris Ruder shared his life story with my entrepreneurship class. After working at Microsoft for a decade, Ruder decided to quit his job and redesign his life. He founded a sport that went viral in the United States, with over 4 million players. Ruder’s story taught me four important life lessons that I think would benefit all of us.

First, it’s possible to refocus your life at any point. When Ruder first conjured up the idea of Spikeball, he said the risk of quitting his corporate job was high. He was a husband and a father of three children, and quitting his stable and well-paid job at Microsoft would mean losing all the benefits that came along with it. Nevertheless, Ruder said his long dissatisfaction with his working environment pushed him to make the difficult choice.

Often, we hear adults say that they are stuck in a job they dislike while they refuse to do anything to change things. Instead, they blame it on something else. “I have a family to feed,” they say. “But I am about to be promoted,” they say. Ruder is living proof that these statements are sometimes nothing but excuses and fear. When you have enough will, determination and passion, you can redesign your life any time you want.

Second, take risks. But more importantly, take calculated risks. Instead of altogether quitting his job at Microsoft, Ruder came up with an even better plan. He worked on Spikeball from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. every day while still working at his day job. Ruder found a way to redirect his career without compromising stability. Granted, it took immense hard work and persistence, but he pulled it off. After five years of moonlighting, Ruder reaped the fruits of the risks he took and quit his job to go work full-time with Spikeball.

Third, taking things slow can lead to magical results. It took Ruder five years of sitting on his idea of Spikeball before he actually put it into practice. He would test the idea of Spikeball on his friends and talk about it with strangers. He wasn’t in a hurry to get started, and he took things slow. A lot of “wantrepreneurs” today jump into product development impatiently without spending enough time learning what customers actually want. But Ruder’s patience set him apart, and, eventually, it paid off.

Last, but perhaps most important, compassion and human connections matter. Ruder’s success with Spikeball largely stems from his ability to foster human connections. While advertising for Spikeball, Ruder said he would ask basketball players to give out free Spikeball sets to their opponents when they won games. The losing team who received the Spikeball set almost always reacted with surprise and smiles on their faces. That gesture of respecting your competitor showed compassion and sportsmanship, which people started to associate Spikeball with as a result.

Ruder said he also requires all 24 of his employees to do customer service shifts no matter what position they are in. They start their emails to customers with greetings like “Hey Mike!” and “What’s up Sarah?!” instead of the typical, monotonous “Dear Customer.” Ruder said every customer is valuable to Spikeball, and they want to convey that whenever they interact with their users. Ruder genuinely cares about connecting with people, and he wants to make Spikeball a community that symbolizes love and inclusivity for whoever plays the sport.

Thanks to Ruder, my understanding of what an entrepreneur is has changed. I always thought entrepreneurs are just really techy, casual and smart, but it turns out that entrepreneurs can be incredibly patient, kind and human. The process of finding teammates, pitching, fundraising and pivoting again and again is incredibly difficult and demanding, but it can actually be easier if you approach it with a genuine and sincere attitude. Anyone can become an entrepreneur, even when you think you can’t afford it. If Ruder can do it, so can you.

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the Spikeball founder. He is Chris Ruder. The Daily regrets the error.

Yujia Huang is a Weinberg junior. She can be contacted at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.